I’ve been a wayward child, and I’ve been a parent of wayward children. And without a doubt, it’s way harder to be the parent than the child.
Almost thirty years ago, my late father, Jack Miller, and I co-wrote a book that chronicled my prodigal wanderings, his parental wrestlings, and our strained relationship through it all. It’s titled Come Back, Barbara. One thing my dad said in the book was that during that hard time it didn’t seem as if I had enough imagination to be afraid. My parents worried while I blithely careened from one bad choice to the next.
I now share their former worries. All I want is for my children to live by faith. Yet at the same time, I find myself struggling with my own faith. And allowing my children to see this struggle can make all the difference.
Change Begins with Us
It’s easy to think that change needs to start with our children. But in my life, it was watching my parents struggle and change — watching them grow in faith, hope, and love — that got my attention. I had lived far from God for many years. The only Christians I knew were my family. I knew they had something I didn’t have — hope for themselves and for me and a powerful love that was not crushed by my rejection of them and God.
“Allowing our children to see us struggle can make all the difference.”
I thought that came easy to them (they were Christians after all), but now I know a little bit more about how our children’s struggles challenge our faith. I know how easy it is to lose heart when they lose heart. And how tempting it is to respond to them with anger and judgment instead of sacrificial love. And then to put some Christian words and phrases over the whole thing so I can fool myself (but not them) that I’m living by faith.
When we honestly work through our faith before our children’s watching eyes, we can create a point of connection with them in our struggle and also reveal a hope that they do not yet have.
Pray to Receive the Faith You Need
How do we learn to live honestly before our children? How can we reveal our need to them while also holding on to our hope? It starts with recognizing just how deep our own need really is.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:3). Blessed are those who have nothing and know it. Blessed are those who know that Jesus has everything that we and our children need and are willing to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. Jesus promises that when we persist in asking, we will receive. Receive what? We will receive the Father’s best gift: the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:10–13). As we ask, we are given the Spirit of God, who shows us the depths of our need and also shines the light of his love into our hearts.
In the light of God’s love, we can see that our children, not God, are often center stage in our lives. Samuel Rutherford said this about children: “Give them room beside your heart, but not in the yolk of your heart where Christ should be; for then, they are your idols, not your children."
But also, knowing how deeply loved we are by God, we can ask for forgiveness for Jesus’s sake. It’s surprising how humbling ourselves before God makes room for faith and love to grow. Suddenly our children’s failings seem more familiar to us. They are like us — they need Jesus and so do we. We need hearts that love God first and best, and so do they. It turns out that not just children are wayward — all parents have been as well. This is what our children need to see: we parents have needs just as great as theirs.
Let Them See Your Sins and Weaknesses
What a difference it made when my parents shared their sins and weaknesses with me. I had always thought that Christians (like my parents) were good people. Since I was not a good person (with a divorce, multiple failed relationships, and substance abuse to prove that point), I could not be a Christian.
“Living by faith in front of our children doesn’t mean concealing our sins, weaknesses, and failures.”
But wait . . . now my father was asking me for forgiveness for being controlling. Now my mother was telling me that she acted like an orphan who didn’t have a heavenly Father to love her and help her. It rocked my world. Perhaps Jesus was for bad people too?
Living by faith in front of our children doesn’t mean concealing our sins, weaknesses, failures, and suffering. Instead, it means letting our children see how God grows our faith in the midst of those things.
Trust Jesus to Do What You Can’t
I need Jesus every day. You need Jesus every day. We are broken by sin just as our children are. We have an enemy, just as our children do. We live in a world where the enemy of our souls seems to be in charge. But we depend on the one who defeated death and evil. Go to him. Take your children with you as you go.
There have been many times that as I’ve prayed for my children, I have pictured simply bringing them to the foot of the cross. I don’t have the wisdom or the power to sort out their lives. But I know the Light of the World. I know the Lover of their souls. I trust him to do what I can’t.